Composition is the art of how we frame our photographs. As photographers, we always have a frame, and much of what makes a photograph good can come directly from that choice of composition. It’s really all about controlling the viewer’s eye and maximizing the message. Photography is visual communication and always carries some sort of story. With composition, we distill and refine our story from the overall environment,

It is said that a good photograph relies on three things: an interesting subject, good lighting and good composition. Bad lighting can ruin a good photo, just as it’s hard to take a good photo of an unattractive subject. But equally, getting the composition wrong can detract from the image’s potential by confusing or hiding the subject, or simply by not presenting it in its best light (pun intended).

Point of interest, Simplicity & Contrast

A good place to start is before you take the image. What is the subject? What is the story? What is the point of interest? Once you define exactly what it is you want to communicate, it makes it much easier to figure our what type of composition will strengthen that message. Should you use a  longer telephoto lens for a narrower field of view, or a wide angle lens to include more of the environment Should you change your viewpoint? What elements should be included in the frame, and what should be removed. This leads to simplicity. Photography tends to work better when it’s simple, as opposed to cluttered and complex. The cleaner it is; the fewer elements there are in the frame, gives photo a graphic and simple quality that just works. The KISS method works well here. Composition is often about what you keep out of the frame, as much as it is about what you put in. Finally, contrast is your friend. There are many forms of contrast (light / dark, big / small, colour contrast, and even conceptual contrast). Make us of contrast to highlight your subject and tell us where to look.

This shot of old bowling pins shows point of interest, simplicity and contrast all on the one shot.

This shot of old bowling pins shows point of interest, simplicity and contrast all on the one shot.

The Rule of Thirds

Let’s move on to the rule of thirds. This is based on splitting the frames into thirds both vertically and horizontally. This creates 4 intersections, otherwise known as power points, and the rule of thirds says that if we place the subject at one of these intersections (which occur a third on the way into the frame) we will achieve nice composition. This is because, in photography, asymmetrical composition is generally considered to be more attractive than symmetrical composition. There are plenty of times when an image calls for symmetrical composition, but generally speaking, most shots benefit from an asymmetrical approach.

Most modern cameras actually have this thirds grid you can turn on so you can use it to help with your compositions. For the more advanced photographer, you will find that composition becomes a more intuitive thing, but using the formula of the rule of thirds is definitely a good starting point for composition. One of the most important things to remember, and this is one of my favourite photography quotes of all time, is that “photography is a game of inches”. With regard composition, this suggests that very small movements will make a significant difference. So practice small movements when trying to find that perfect composition.

With landscape images, the rule of thirds also helps us with out horizon placement. The idea here is that you place the horizon either on the lower third or the upper third of the frame, and not in the middle. This subconsciously informs the the viewer what the most interesting aspect of the scene is. If the horizon is down low, then the sky will draw their attention. If it is high, then the foreground will have much more to say. Again, there are shots where the horizon in the middle will be the correct choice, but generally, it’s not.

The model’s eye is at a Power point, the intersection that defines the rule of thirds.

Asymmetrical composition chosen due to the direction of the subject. Always place negative space in the direction the subject is looking (moving)

With landscapes, the rule of thirds can define the placement of the horizon. In this way you can direct the viewers to the foreground or the sky.

Orientation

Another aspect of composition is the orientation of the camera. In my experience, many beginners tend to take nearly all of their photographs in a landscape orientation. Perhaps it is just the ergonomics of the camera that suggests this choice to the beginner, and for that reason alone, I love battery grips, as they make a dslr much more versatile to shoot with regarding orientation. But think about orientation when shooting. A portrait for example is much more likely to work in a portrait orientation. There are loads of great landscape oriented portraits out there, but again, as a generalisation, or starting point, portraits work well in that long thin orientation, as it matches the fact our bodies are much longer than they are wide. A good practice is to remember to take shots with both orientations of your subject and see which one is working better and why. As you become more comfortable with looking at orientation, you might start to compose with a post process crop in mind, In other words, you might shoot in landscape orientation, but with the intent of cropping off a third of the shot in post processing to create a 1:1 aspect ratio (a square). This brings a whole new world of fun into the art of composition. Some medium format cameras like the mighty Hasselblad, is actually a square ratio to begin with. As Instagram knew from the start, a square aspect ratio is a very cool look, and while it tends to enable symmetry more than asymmetry, it’s a great format. So even if you shoot with a dslr, you can still shoot with a crop in mind. I’ve even gone so far as to taping up my screen with gaffer tape so it displayed a 1:1 ratio and I could get a better idea of how to compose for that aspect ratio while I was actually shooting.

Principles of Design

A more advanced way of thinking about composition is thinking about we can use the elements in our image to design the image (and hence the story). There are a number of design principles that can really help inform the way we compose our shots, and how that informs their message. The 9 principles of design are: Balance, Emphasis, Movement, Pattern, Repetition, Proportion, Rhythm, Variety and Unity. It is a big study to fully integrate the principles of design into your photography, but even beginners can start by understanding what they can do. Getty Education has a great little fact sheet that describes the principles, but let’s just take an example.

Let’s look at emphasis. It is defined as “the part of the design that catches the viewer’s attention. Usually the artist will make one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas. The area could be different in size, color, texture, shape, etc.”

Now imagine a scenario. Let’s say we encounter a young boy outside a hotel, sitting on the steps. His father has apparently left him there while going in for a beer. The boy looks sad and lonely. Now ignoring any moral arguments about taking photos of random children, let’s say we want to take a photo of the scene. The hotel wall happens to be grey and uniform, a large expanse of plastered concrete with the door and the step the only  thing breaking the expanse. When we consider our composition, and Emphasis, we also think about what lens we want to use. The different focal lengths that various lenses give us access to affect several things in the photo, namely depth of field, perspective and field of view.  In this example I choose a relatively wide angle lens, as I decide I want to capture a lot of the wall (and I don’t want to get run over).  And then by placing the child at the bottom left of the frame (perhaps near the first power point in and up), we will get a couple of effects. The emphasis will come from the contrast of the boys size and the wall’s size, emphasizing his smallness and metaphorically, his loneliness. The use of a wide angle lens will allow us to show much more of the wall than another lens would, again emphasizing the boys size. And if by chance the boy had a brightly coloured t shirt on the contrast with the wall would also emphasis him as the main subject. Other elements would also need to be in place, like good lighting, and the right moment (perhaps when he is looking down at his feet, hands on chin). But that is separate from composition, where our main task is to arrange the elements of the image in a way that will support the story we are trying to tell.

OK, that was a big post. I hope you took some good points from that. Remember that essentially, composition becomes an instinctive thing eventually, but is informed by all these elements of design to start off. Take what you can on board and get shooting!